Saturday, February 26, 2005

NGA Extravaganza

Here's an AP article about the National Governors Association Education Summit. Bill Gates addressed the throng today, and Spellings will do the same tomorrow.

Here's an NPR interview with Gov. Mark Warner, chairman of the NGA and future Democratic presidential candidate, from Friday, just before the beginning of the summit.

Schwarzenegger and Jeb Bush did not attend. Anyone know why?

Noddings speaks out

Stanford Professor Emeritus Nel Noddings laid out her argument for repeal of No Child Left Behind last week in Education Week. Since most of the conversations in the edusphere focus on changing the law, I think it's important to consider the case for eliminating it. Here are some of her arguments:

The high-stakes testing associated with the law seems to be demoralizing teachers, students, and administrators. We need more documentation on this but, in talking with people all over the country, I hear stories of sick and frightened children, dispirited teachers, and administrators disgusted with the strategies they must use to meet (or evade) AYP, the adequate-yearly-progress requirement. A good law does not demoralize good people.

This argument is an important one. Imagine a dedicated teacher, putting in extra hours to ready her students for the standardized tests. But many of her students came to her well below grade level. Perhaps she's a sixth grade teacher with several students reading at 3rd grade level. She gets them to 5th grade level in less than a year and it means nothing. Even if she accelerates their learning significantly they may still fail to reach the standard. And thus, she fails. Imagine that. Would you want to come back next year and work your ass off for low pay only to be called a failure again? I doubt it. And yet, in every conversation about the crises in education, teacher retention is at the top of the list. Can't we see that NCLB is exacerbating this problem?

The curriculum seems to be suffering. We need more evidence to state this as fact, but reports from many sources are suggestive. If the No Child Left Behind legislation was designed to provide better schooling, especially for poor and minority students, this result is deeply troubling. For it is the curriculum of these children that seems to have been gutted. Wealthier kids, in schools that don’t have to worry so much about test scores, may still enjoy arts, music, drama, projects, and critical conversation. But poor kids are spending far too much time bent over worksheets and test-prep materials.

And here's one of my major problems with NCLB. Whenever a state legislator or federal ed employee touts the latest "results," all they mean is the test scores. It doesn't tell us if the students can learn independently, think critically, play an instrument, speak a foreign language, speak in front of a group, write an essay, or follow a public policy debate like this one. What those improved "results" probably mean is that the students spent several months doing nothing but targeted test prep. Again, one of the biggest problems consistently talked about in education debates is dropout rates. Do you think kids are going to be more likely to want to stay in school if curricula are narrowly focused on test preparation?

Our poor and minority students are hurt again by the high-stakes testing under No Child Left Behind. Disproportionately, they are the kids who are retained in grade, forced into summer school (for more test prep), beaten down by repeated failure, and deprived of a high school diploma. If we really wanted to help poor, inner-city kids, we would not try to do so by imposing a bad law on everyone. We would identify the problem and muster massive resources to solve it: provide money to renovate crumbling buildings, add clinics (especially dental and vision) to school campuses, provide day care for infants and small children, recruit the finest teachers with significantly higher pay, and even provide boarding facilities for homeless children and those caught in family emergencies. We would establish on-site research-and-development teams (in cooperation with universities) to experiment with, develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate promising practices. Understanding that schools and kids are not all alike, these would be long-term R&D projects serving particular schools—not research projects looking for “what works” universally. We could do these things if we had the will, and if we would stop wasting enormous sums on testing, compliance measures, and the host of activities associated with testing.

I'm not sure it's honest to suggest that the money spent on testing could build housing facilities and medical clinics for poor students, fix crumbling buildings, and increase teacher pay, but at any rate, those dollars would be better spent on those things than on tests. You want to really increase educational equity? You only get what you pay for.

The law seems to be a corrupting influence. Again, we need more documentation. But reports suggest that cheating has increased at every level, and administrators are busily seeking loopholes, using triage techniques, moving kids around and reclassifying them, playing with data—all to meet the letter of a law whose actual requirements cannot reasonably be met... If the No Child Left Behind Act is corrupting, we should get rid of it.

This is only going to get worse as legislators begin to target substantial raises to teachers whose students excel on the tests. They are ramping up the motivation for cheating. And cheating they will get.

Newsweek interview with Dick Riley

Here's an interview with Clinton's Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

Money quote on No Child Left Behind:

[I'm] seeing a serious frustration everywhere I speak. [Teachers and educators are concerned] that they’re taking the creative teaching out of the classroom and it’s too much “teaching to the test.” They ought to have No Child Left Behind, but they ought to have more flexibility and we ought to have the federal government be a partner with the states and fund it. If you demand more, you ought to pay more.

There are those f-words again: flexibility and funding. It's such a consistent message from critics across the political spectrum, from Clinton's education secretary to Utah conservatives.

If the Bushies want NCLB to take root beyond their time in power, these are clearly the problems they must fix. I don't have any confidence that they have the political will or skill to do it. But then again, like most critics, I've misunderestimated 'em before...

Friday, February 25, 2005

NCLB's bad week just got worse

The Texas Education Commissioner issued a direct challenge to the feds today. She refused to accept the mandated pass/fail levels and let several hundred school districts off the "needs improvement" list. The hang up? Exemptions of special ed students from standardized tests.

Under NCLB, only 1% of special ed kids are exempted from taking the same tests that other students take. Neeley (the Commissioner) exempted 10% which triggered a failing score for over 400 districts, but -- apparently in direct violation of NCLB -- she only counted 80 or so as failing in the scores released by the Texas Education Agency yesterday.

From the Houston Chronicle:

Faced with the prospect of tagging nearly half of the state's school districts with failing grades under the federal accountability system, Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley instead changed the rules to reduce the number of failing schools sixfold.

The move, described by some as a direct challenge to the U.S. Department of Education's enforcement of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, sets up a potential showdown between Neeley and the Bush administration.

National education observers said Neeley's move makes Texas the first state to outright refuse to follow the law's requirements.

Texas receives more than $1 billion in federal money tied to compliance with No Child Left Behind. Some of that money could be in jeopardy, depending on how federal officials react to Neeley's decision. The TEA released grades Friday.

A showdown between the Texans in Washington and the Texans in Texas?!? Wow, this should be good.

If Spellings backs down, as the Chronicle reports, a dozen or so other states will follow suit and exempt more special ed students from the test. If she doesn't, up to $1 billion could be removed from an education budget in the state of Texas that is already -- because there is no state income tax -- woefully inadequate. Either way, the consequences of Spellings' decisions on this will be significant.

Tough week

It's been a bad week for fans of NCLB.

First, the news that Utah is pretty close to unanimously rejecting it and the federal funds that come with it.
Then, the release of a damning report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. And now, Virginia and Minnesota are leaning ever closer to outright rebellion. I like Virginia's approach: let's see how much NCLB's testing regime is costing us. Is it more or less than the federal money coming into the state?

Surely NCLB proponents, with their fetish for quantitative data, would like to see the numbers? Right? And if the data shows, as I suspect it will, that these tests cost billions more to create, administer, and score than the feds are providing, then conservatives and progressives alike can rail against the waste of scarce education dollars. Hey, folks, if data is almighty, you gotta accept it not just when it's on your side, but when it goes against you, too. The data giveth and the data taketh away. Here's hoping it takes away at least some of this awful law.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Scientologists as drug educators?!?

Aren't there enough bad things to say about drugs that we don't need Scientologists to make stuff up and pass it off as drug education in schools?

This is almost too bizarre to believe.

Give me a single idea...

Eduwonk rightly points out the irony of progressives championing the actions of the Utah Legislature. In so doing, he links to an article of The New Republic's Martin Peretz (go to for login). It's a rambling, disjointed diatribe imploring liberals to rethink everything, to awaken from their slouch towards extinction. Peretz's arguments are often illogical, but I was struck by this comment:

[We need] a wholesale revamping of teaching and learning. The conservatives have their ideas, and many of them are good, such as charter schools and even vouchers. But give me a single liberal idea with some currency, even a structural notion, for transforming the elucidation of knowledge and thinking to the young. You can't.

I can. There are many. But they don't reduce well to soundbites and nobody's paying PR firms to promote them. Still, those are excuses. We -- progressives, that is -- need to do the work of clearly articulating a vision. This is the challenge.

I propose that progressives pick up the cause of democracy in schools. Really, think about it. We teach about ideals like freedom, liberty, self-governance, equality-- in a word, democracy. But schools are structured so that students are subject to the dictates of their teachers and administrators. Why not have a school system where children and adolescents are intimately involved in making decisions, where they learn -- experientially -- about the responsibility that comes with freedoms.

It wouldn't cost anything but it has the potential to transform education into something infinitely more meaningful, enjoyable, and effective than it currently is.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Legislatures, Governors, and wonks

There's a lot going on right now.

(1) The National Council of State Legislatures released their 77-page report detailing proposed changes to No Child Left Behind. No doubt Spellings will not be pleased. I'm working my way through it (click here for executive summary, here for whole document) and the recommendations seem entirely sensible to me for the most part. The highligt so far: I was wrong when I asserted that the federal government has the right to withhold federal Title I funds for schools that opt out of NCLB. I argued that the courts had consistently stood by that right of the federal government. According to the NCSL, that's not so.

The courts ruled in South Dakota v. Dole that Congress may use inducements but not coercion to attain state compliance. Last week, the feds told Utah that if they opt out of NCLB, they will lose not only Title I funds but also funds for after school, drug free school, and literacy programs. Lawsuit anyone?

(2) The National Governor's Association will have a summit this weekend to focus on redesigning American high schools. I've written about this effort before and I think it's an important one. I'll be keeping a close eye on stories from the summit.

(3) Eduwonk wrote yesterday that he will be joining Virginia's State Board of Education as a Mark Warner appointee. First of all, I congratulate Mr. Wonk (really Andrew Rotherham) and congratulate the people of Virginia. Clearly, Eduwonk lives up to his name: he knows his ed policy.

But I must say I find it curious. Mark Warner has been a critic of NCLB, saying in the past that Virginia's Standards of Learning were better than the NCLB mandated standards and that NCLB actually led to a watering down of Virginia's curriculum. He also said that reauthorization of NCLB in Bush's second term would be "the perfect storm." Rotherham, by contrast, has been one of the controversial Act's most consistent cheerleaders.

Well, there's more, but I'm tired. I'll definitely write more about the specific recommendations of the NCSL tomorrow. A few weeks ago, Jenny D. challenged me to recommend specific changes for NCLB. This gives me -- gives everyone -- a great point of reference for that very important conversation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Small is ... functional?

Yes, the schools within schools idea is a good one. Small is not only beautiful but functional, too. From an AP story on

The freshmen at Wheaton High often seemed lost, overwhelmed by new faces and classes that felt disconnected. So the school got its houses in order.

Wheaton gave ninth-graders their own community -- a separate wing of the high school and teams called "houses," in which about 100 students share classes and teachers all year.

Now, in a building of 1,470 students, class sizes for freshmen rarely go above 20 students in the core subjects. Teachers of English, math, science and social studies meet regularly to coordinate their lessons and to figure out how to help struggling students.

Since this Ninth Grade Academy began three years ago, the school has seen freshman attendance improve, advancement to the sophomore year rise, and classroom disruptions drop.

"The students are very focused, and calmer than most ninth-graders I've seen," said assistant principal Virginia de los Santos. "I've seen students turn themselves around."

Wheaton's experiment with the school-within-a-school idea is part of a trend that keeps growing in popularity more than 30 years after it first emerged. Roughly 3,000 academies exist in different forms across the country, an example of how U.S. school leaders are trying to make high schools more meaningful -- a mission that's suddenly a national priority.

If Bush and Spellings are sincere about improving the quality of high school education, this is something that can be done without a hefty price tag. Schools need only be reconfigured. And the Gates and Dell Foundations will augment what minimal government spending is needed. Any good reasons why we shouldn't make the transformation of high schools into smaller units a national priority?

Monday, February 21, 2005

From Alaska to Florida... a court roundup

The courts are back in the news about education. In four parts:

(1) Right here in Texas, the state Supreme Court has decided to hear the appeal of the case that ruled the state's education system to be unconstitutional. I've long thought that the all Republican Supreme Court would quickly overturn the lower court's decision. But District Judge John Dietz was so meticulous in his 200 page Findings of Fact that they'll have their work cut out for them if they intend to show that the system is indeed adequate and equitable. (It's neither.)

(2) A similar case will be heard next month in Alaska. On first glance, though, I think this one will lose. The Alaska Constitution has no specifics about its education system. In Texas, the constitution says that the state must provide for "a general diffusion of knowledge" and an "efficient" system. No such stipulations in Alaska.

(3) The Massachusetts Supreme Court, apparently cowed by the backlash to its uber-controversial ruling in favor of gay marriage last fall, ruled that it could not get involved in school funding, instead leaving the matter to the state Leg.

(4) And finally, in Florida, the Supremes will have to rule if the state's controversial (and small -- only 700 students) voucher program violates the state's constitutional ban of public funding of religious institutions of any kind. Of course, the Supreme Court upheld vouchers for church schools in Ohio, but this is different as it deals with the state constitution in a state Republicans (w/ Gov. Jeb at the helm) would like to use as a proving ground for vouchers. I think the vouchers will lose. The language in the constitution is pretty clear.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

No child left... in poverty?

Be sure to check out Molly Ivins' column from last week highlighting the budget cuts announced by President Bush. It is directly related to the argument I made last week about inequitable funding.

Read any overview of [Presidents Bush's budget] proposal, and you can see exactly who's getting screwed: children.

Good Lord, what a nasty document. The cuts are in health care, childcare, Head Start, nutrition programs, food stamps and foster care. Because budgets are such abstract things – add a little here, cut some there, all produced by the Department of Great Big Numbers – it's hard to see what they actually mean to real people's lives.

In fact, that's something I've long noticed about George W. Bush: He really doesn't see any connection between government programs and helping people. Promoting the general welfare, one of the six reasons the Constitution gives for having a government in the first place, is not high on his list. I refer you back to his immortal statement while governor: "No children are going to go hungry in this state. You'd think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas." He'd been governor for five years at the time.

What this budget means, quite literally, is that more kids will be hungry and malnourished. More kids who get sick will be unable to see a doctor, more kids with diseases will go undiagnosed until they get so sick they have to be carried to the emergency room. More kids who need glasses or hearing aids won't get them, causing them to fall behind in school. More kids will show up to start school without being in the least prepared, and they will remain behind for the rest of their days. Less money for childcare means more kids left alone or in unsafe places with irresponsible or incapable people while their parents work. More kids who are being severely abused will go unnoticed, and fewer of them will find safe foster homes.

And guess what, folks? Disaggregated test scores don't -- and can't -- tell this story. The achievement gap is not about lazy and uncaring teachers and it's not about the soft bigotry of low expectations. It's about the very hard bigotry of poverty. Until we accept that fundamental fact, we cannot make any progress-- period.

Happy President's Day

Is anyone else slightly disturbed that Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, doesn't know how many presidents there have been?

From her statement on

Today, we honor the 43 citizens who have held the title of President of the United States. We celebrate their commitment and dedication. We cherish their visions for the great promise of this nation. And we remember the trials each of them faced in office.

There have been 42, not 43, presidents. Cleveland served two discontinuous terms.

Perhaps Spellings should be regularly tested to ensure that she is learning.
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